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Expert Advice: Colman Ho – Lessons from a serial entrepreneur

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Starting a company is an adventure. As you progress, you make mistakes, and you have successes. For many, the destination is the financial success. But it takes professional wisdom to understand that the journey itself is the destination.

Colman Ho, Vice President Group Marketing for Century City Holdings Ltd told us about his extraordinary career and the lessons he’s learned. If you’re a start up or developing business, his advice is golden.

theDesk Sai Wan

The reflective entrepreneur

Colman Ho is a Hong Kong entrepreneur. He’s a man who followed a unique path.

“I’ve done a lot of things,” Colman tells me. We’re in the lobby at Regal Hotel in Causeway Bay. A short distance from theDesk’s new workspaces in One Hysan Avenue and Leighton Centre.

Charming and intelligent, the breadth of Ho’s knowledge is inspiring. So too, his ability to condense years of industry experience into a few tangible lessons.

A path less travelled

“I started off like everyone else,” he says. But not everyone leaves home early and moves to Europe. He enrolled in one of the world’s top hotel schools in Switzerland.

“I’d say I was a very mature kid. At 19 I didn’t want to go to university and look at life beginning four years down the road. I wanted to get my hands dirty.”

Discover your direction

After graduation, he returned to Hong Kong, where he worked in prestigious hotels. “I then went to the United States to further my training and study,” he explains.

After a stint at Ritz Carlton, he questioned his next move. “Seeing what was happening in Hong Kong, Europe and the USA I asked myself if I wanted to be an hotelier. And the answer was no.”

Testing the water

So, what next? He dabbled with investments for a while. He then turned his hand to teaching, working on hotel and hospitality programmes at VTC and Baptist University.

“It didn’t work out,” he says. “It’s dangerous to consider yourself an expert when you’re not active in the industry,” he tells me. “In the States it’s different. You can teach and work in real life business. But not in Hong Kong. Here, when you teach you teach. And that’s it.”

Challenge yourself

“Those early years are the most important time of your life. I wanted to go out and do as much as I could.”

“I’d tried different things, worked for prestigious hotels. I had excellent training, and I knew I would have a secure life.”

He might have done what most other kids do, and work his way through the ranks in business. But opportunity knocked when an old school friend contacted him

“I decided I didn’t want to follow the usual path. I wanted something that would stimulate and challenge me.”

More expert advice: Expert Advice: The qualities you need to grow your business

Jumping in at the deep end

“This was around 1988. My friend was working in Beijing. He had good experience and contacts. He’d started a small travel company and had two opportunities at hand.”

He asked Ho to become a partner in a travel agency and advertising business. “I jumped at the chance. We set up an office in Central and did both things at the same time.”

His was an international business. “Our media partners and resources were in China. Our main clients were from Hong Kong,” he says.

He moved to Beijing after six years. “China was opening up. Our clients were moving north,” he recalls. And the next stage of Colman’s adventure began.

No such thing as a job for life

For many, the notion that you have one job in life is neither appealing nor possible.

“I read a survey that resonates with my past. The chance of our next generation working only in one industry is minimal — less than 10%.”

Ho believes in the cross exchange of skills and knowledge. “When I first started in travel and advertising, my hotel background enabled me to offer clients a level of service that other players couldn’t.”

Finding success

“In the travel sector, the pattern was for people to offer a deal, give some ‘kickbacks’ and sweeteners. And everyone was happy,” he laughs.

Ho’s skills and experience from other sectors differentiated him. And led to success.

“We offered quality service; a complete package. For example, I introduced a ‘three rings’ answering approach. At the time, only the hotel industry did that.”

Innovation is a thread running throughout Ho’s career. “In China, we stayed away from the three traditional media – outdoor advertising, TV and newspapers,” he says.

In 1994 China, those three often accounted for over 80% of advertising budgets. Ho and his partners carved a new path and started working with local and in-flight magazines.

Lesson 1: Old wine in new bottles

“We were the first to bring in international clients, like Ford, to advertise in local magazines. We had clients advertise through in-flight video, long before anyone thought of it.”

The approach meant they generated more than RMB 10 million revenue.

“There are things one can learn in any industry. So, when you take on something new, you can apply that knowledge and experience,” he reflects.

“Find the common denominator, something that market needs. Open your eyes and ears. Pay attention and and use your past skills and experience to find new and intriguing ways to solve a client’s problem.”

Ho draws a parallel with the emergence of internet entrepreneurs. The pioneers of today don’t have a rulebook to follow. They need to write their own rules and invent.

“We were only four people, but we made use of our previous experience and applied it to new situations.”

More expert advice: Shea Stanley – Mumpreneur founder of Little Steps

Teaching people to fish

Colman worries that the mindset required for modern business is remote from young people’s experience at school.

“These skills are what schools should teach children in the first place. Unfortunately, in Hong Kong, young people aren’t empowered in this way.”

As the saying goes, give a man a fish and feed him for a day. Teach a man how to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime. This is a sentiment Colman has held throughout his eclectic career.

“Skills should apply to many contexts. Whether managing people or making links between new situations and existing knowledge. There is no purpose in following a set of procedures for one task only”

Lesson 2: Focus on business basics

Companies often falter in the transition from startup to established business. The burst of passion and energy becomes diluted with the move from revenue generating to profit making.

“This was an important lesson. In advertising, you can generate a lot of revenue but little profit,” Ho reflects.

Cash flow is one reason that companies fail during this phase. “As your company grows, cash flow can get tight. Startup founders need to remind themselves of this.”

“Experience showed me that you have to know your basic accounting skills. You always need to keep your eye on cash flow. Especially when you’re scaling up.”

Endurance training

Ho found that turning his startup into a profitable business was tricky the first time.

“We tried a lot of different angles, like cutting our costs. But there wasn’t a quick way of achieving the breakthrough. It took us seven years to go from revenue generating to profitability.”

He says, “Endurance is a word that entrepreneurs need to know. Endurance is what carries you through the start-up stage, getting your first clients, to having a profitable business.”

“You need to think creatively and find solutions for people that may not have been tried before.”

Get ahead of the curve

Now that the company was profitable, many people would feel they could kickback a little and enjoy the rewards. But this is a man who stays hungry for opportunity. A friend in the USA invited him to join him in a new venture in China. Technology was starting to change the way people did business, but it was early days.

“Back then, broadband width was a bottleneck. We didn’t have real ecommerce. We didn’t have digital options to monetise our business. People weren’t ready to change.”

He got onboard the company, working on three innovative projects simultaneously. “The main one was that we set up one of the first hotel online booking sites for the time.”

Lesson 3: Surrounding yourself with different people

Ho’s business expanded and they began to work across sectors, from PR to investment as well as travel and advertising.

He says, “I learned that when you work on a startup, you need to be very careful about your team members.”

Working with your friends and partners seems attractive. But Colman found that when your team has a common background, there is a risk of getting blindsided by unforeseen problems.

“We came from the same school. We liked working together. But it meant we weren’t able to recognise problems because we were too much alike.”

“You need to work with people, who you don’t necessarily like. You may scream and yell in the office every single day, but it helps. You need different talents in the company; different perspectives.”

Ho feels fortunate that this happened early in his career. “If it happened now, I’d be devastated,” he admits

More expert advice: How to create a winning team for your start up or small business

Lesson 4: Don’t get comfortable

“Many people allow themselves to become complacent. They get comfortable,” he says. But Ho believes that a little discomfort stimulates professional development.

He doesn’t allow himself to be in comfortable soil for too long. “In China there is a saying. More or less it’s that ‘being comfortable will kill you, while threats help you thrive.’”

This is something that underlies his approach to personal growth in business. “I’ve put myself in difficult situations many times. It led me to become more reflective.”

Hitting the jackpot

Colman’s advice for young entrepreneurs in this day and age is that you don’t follow a rulebook. You have to discover your way and invent your own rules.

“Some years ago, we took on a project which is a holy grail of in-flight media; the magazine.”

They produced an in-flight publication for a major airline in China. “When we started, the magazine had average annual billing of RMB 6 million. It was good money,” he smiles.

“We weren’t a big company, but we still managed to grow revenue to 24 million in a year.”

And revenue kept growing. “When we left in 2009, we were generating around RMB 130 million for one magazine alone each year.” What’s more, per page revenue had reached RMB 100,000.

“We made the in-flight magazine one of the most successful magazines ever. It was one of the biggest revenue generating magazines ever. We were tete-a-tete with magazines like Vogue and Cosmo in China at that time.”

“Airline magazines are limited by the number of seats on the planes. But they get passed along by passengers. What’s more, costs were low,” he reflects. The business was so successful, it sparked another round of expansion and development

Lesson 5: Learn to select and say no

During this high growth period, Colman learned another essential business lesson; when and how to say no.

“We made so much money. Many people came to us. We invested in a PR company, a movie distribution company, and other businesses.”

Opportunities came left and right. But none of the new projects generated as much revenue as their core business. And none of them was long-lasting or sustainable.

While these were exciting opportunities, a lack of strategy meant company resources became spread too thinly. “Your core business can suffer and, in some case, lead to disaster,” he says.

“What had made us a success was not that we knew how to sell, but that we put together a bunch of talented people from China and all over the world,” he says.

“We could compete with the big publishers. But we didn’t know how to turn down a lot of opportunities that came up. We invested tens of millions of dollars in different ventures.”

Ultimately, the company wasn’t able to focus on its core strengths, and the new ventures proved short term.

Go back to basic

“One of the lessons I learned was knowing what a good opportunity is. It’s hard to generalise, but I think two things stand out. Firstly, ask yourself if you have expertise in the field. If not, just forget it.”

Colman’s second criteria is as relevant today as it was when he started his journey in business. “You have to be able to recognise an opportunity or an industry that is truly not built on hype.”

This point is one that resonates with theDesk. Co-working is receiving a lot of attention. Many players are entering the market to make a fast buck,

“Take time to explore if a business opportunity has got true potential. And it doesn’t matter if the sector is in a slump. If it’s something people do need, there is opportunity.”
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